Targeting the Learning Organization: Working with an Unchanging Budget, Defense Acquisition University, the Corporate University for the U.S. Armed Forces, Managed to Leverage Its Resources into a Highly Effective Strategic Transformation

Article excerpt

As a result of the war in Iraq, last spring Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced he wanted "an entrepreneurial approach to developing military capabilities--one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and anticipates threats before they emerge."

Leading the way in that transformation, the department's Defense Acquisition University (DAU) designed and implemented a six-step plan to imitate a corporate university model and build a learning organization.

The first step in the plan was to gain a motivated, agile workforce. Next, DAU leadership needed to know and understand the workforce's needs in order to provide a more useful curriculum. The result was a Performance Learning Model that included these main thrusts:

* certification and assignment-specific training

* continuous learning

* performance support and rapid deployment training

* knowledge sharing.

DAU is constantly trying to quantify its value. It computes return-on-investment using enterprise-wide performance metrics. Through customer surveys and other results mechanisms, its ultimate goal of personalized learning strategies will support employees in a true learning organization.

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The war waged in Iraq has brought renewed and refocused attention, U.S.-wide and worldwide, on the United States military. Newspapers and media reports feature daily updates on post-war events, while talking heads debate the relative merit of the engagement. Meanwhile, out of the spotlight, 130,000 Defense Acquisition Technology and Logistics personnel work efficiently to provide troops with the supplies and services they need--everything from paper clips to canned corn to Humvees and body armor. DAU spends US$80 to $100 billion per year to support the armed forces of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. DAU does this as part of a forward-looking learning organization that has set its sights firmly on the needs of its 21st-century workforce and has attacked those needs methodically, effecting a transformation that permits it to work with utmost speed and agility.

In April 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced a planned strategic transformation of the entire Department of Defense. Sounding more like a corporate warrior than a civil service employee, he said, "We must promote an entrepreneurial approach to developing military capabilities--one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and anticipates threats before they emerge." Defense Acquisition University, the corporate university that supports AT&L (Acquisition Technology & Logistics), could well be seen as leading the way.

DAU's transformation began in 1999, with the appointment of Frank J. Anderson Jr. as its new president. "We had a program in place, and a program we were proud of," Anderson says. However, his charge from DoD was to "take a hard look at our learning construct in the context of new technological opportunities"--with the goal of answering the question, Are you delivering the best product you believe possible?

The AT&L workforce that DAU supports has increased by 32 percent in the past year. Further, it's being buffeted by the same demographic trends that affect all employers: By 2005, almost half of the total workforce will be eligible to retire; by 2007, the number reaches 70 percent. As DAU strives to train a replacement generation of workers, its student population has increased by 82 percent since 1998. However, its $100 million annual budget has remained unchanged. Clearly, radical innovation was required to continue to meet the training and education needs of the AT&L community.

"We had to justify our use of resources in being the best we could be," Anderson explains. "We couldn't accept 'good' as good enough."

So, DAU designed and implemented a six-step strategic plan designed to replicate a corporate university model and move away from "training" to build a learning organization. …